Christian Kiefer earned his Ph.D. in American literature from the University of California, Davis, and is on the English faculty of American River College in Sacramento. He is an active poet, songwriter, and recording artist, and lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern California with his wife and five sons. The Infinite Tides is his first published novel.
Christian, congratulations on your debut novel, The Infinite Tides! The novel is the story of “famous astronaut Keith Corcoran” and his life’s unraveling at a moment of great achievement and immeasurable loss. The book is beautiful, inside and out. What are you most excited or surprised about thus far, as you watch your book emerge into the world and into the hands of readers?
I’m very humbled by the positive response thus far. It’s always surprising to me that anyone likes anything I do, not because I don’t believe in it but because when I’m working on a record or on this book, I’m really in an insular mental space. Then suddenly it’s out in the world and people—people who aren’t me—seem to get something out of it. It’s like having my soul out there on display.
I deeply enjoyed The Infinite Tides. The main character, Keith Corcoran, is sparsely yet finely drawn. How did you first discover his character, and when did you know you wanted to write a novel about him? I think folks might also like to hear a bit about your research process for the book, which (judging by the acknowledgements page) must have been extensive.
A few things coalesced simultaneously to make this book happen. One was the economic implosion, part of which included the bursting of the housing bubble. I was living in Rocklin in a cul-de-sac situation with my wife and my children. In the neighborhood (a term I hardly think is applicable given the environment), finished, perfect homes were interspersed with empty foreclosures with dead lawns. (& incidentally, the immigrant families managed to keep hold of their homes while American-born families often lost them—a point I make with a weird sense of glee.)
NPR at the time was running new story after news story about out of work people. I kept thinking of men, American men, who often define themselves by the notion of work. “What do you do?” is the classic American male question. So the question became one of identity. I had a bunch of notes for a fake book called Dudes of Great Longing—a fake book because I knew I would never write something with that title (although looking at it here, I still like the title). There were notes about lots of men—immigrants, professionals, working class folks, etc.
About this time, I was speaking with my father about work. He was, at the time, a long haul trucker. He said something that I’ve heard him say before: “They pay you because you don’t want to do it. Everyone hates their job.” But this time he added a wrinkle: “Except maybe the President or an astronaut.”
The character came out of those ideas and situations. What if someone tries their entire life to become an astronaut and essentially fails at the task. What then? What’s the follow up? There isn’t one. Or is there? What gets lost in the constant monitoring of momentum? When does a vector become a still point?
The research was intense, but I’ve already gone on too long. Suffice to say I am surrounded by talented, helpful people at American River College, where I work, and their help (and the help of my favorite librarians there) was essential, as was the vast amount of information NASA has made public on their website.
In the book, I felt a strong tension between what I experienced as a sort of ultra-realism of the plot itself and then these moments of expansive lyricism and resonant metaphor that poured out of the narrator’s voice. In the most striking instances of these moments, the narrator actually speaks directly to the reader, which felt like a tricky move to me, in that it could so easily go awry. I think the question here is: How did you settle on this particular narrator and that voice’s stance toward the story it tells, and what challenges did you face as you wrote the story through this voice? And/or: What is your own stance toward this story, and how has it evolved throughout your writing process?
Voice is easy for me. Lots of other aspects of it are not. Character. Plot. These things I have to fight for. But voice and point of view—that shifting where the book addresses the reader directly—that just came out of the writing itself. It seemed natural in the voice and I have to say that there’s even more of that in the new book I’m working on now. It might be tempered a bit by the time anyone gets to actual read it, but I don’t see any reason why to act as if the façade of a narrative is totally intact. It would be very naïve to do so even though of course I also realize that The Infinite Tides is a very traditional novel in many ways.
If voice was one of the easier things for you in writing this novel, what was your biggest challenge? What did you learn as a writer in making your way through this project?
The biggest challenge was dialing in the character so that he would be inexplicable and explicable at the same time. There are drafts where he’s more outgoing and drafts where he’s much more Asperger-like. That was a challenge. Another big challenge for me was figuring out how to roll the plot forward in a way that would work without it seeming like the plot was moving forward. The book is really about circles and about spinning place, so I didn’t want a plot that had forward momentum. (Of course, in the end I’ve read too much Hawthorne to not have it move forward; I just didn’t want it to move forward in a particularly noticeable way.) My editor at Bloomsbury, Anton Mueller, helped me walk that tightrope.
As I read and write, I am eternally interested in shape and form, and these seem to be central concerns in your novel at the most existential levels. The word “fractal,” which itself repeats throughout the book, seems as if it may have been a cornerstone inspiration for the novel. Would you talk a bit about what a fractal is, how you came across the concept of fractals, and how your experience of this concept affected your writing of this book?
“Inexplicable” is a word that shows up a lot in the book and, at least during a very specific section on fractals that appears pretty much in the exact center of the novel, so does “beauty.” For Keith Corcoran, my protagonist, beauty itself is inexplicable and fractals are, for him, the mathematical analogue to that inexplicability. What it actual is, though, is a circle. Fractals circle into themselves in interesting ways that we viewers—mathematicians and non-mathematicians alike—respond to. They are indeed beautiful. But in terms of the book, the centrality of it is cyclical. The orbit. The cul-de-sac. The way in which the landscape itself seems endless (self-similar). These are geographical and astronomical reflections of Keith’s situations. (I hesitate to say too much more because I feel like I’m blowing the subtleties.)
Keith Corcoran forms an unexpected and ultimately transformational connection with Peter, a Ukranian immigrant neighbor Keith meets only after his return from the International Space Station, amid the loss of his daughter and wife. How did the need for the character of Peter reveal itself to you as you wrote the novel? How did you arrive at this particular character–his origin and past career, his family situation, his own loves and losses?
Much of Petruso Kovalenko—Peter—comes from my experiences teaching immigrant students at American River College. Such students—particularly older students—are really working hard at a new life, but often at a great cost. They might have been dentists in Russia or the Ukraine or somewhere else, but here in America they work at a pizza parlor and are trying to get a nursing degree. It’s a complete return-to-zero situation.
I knew I needed a foil to Keith’s tendency to crawl up his own brainstem and Peter (and especially Peter’s wife Luda, who we don’t really completely know until the final chapter) provides that. Peter’s derail is similar to Keith’s but it’s also much more concrete and in many ways more heartbreaking. There’s a scene where Peter tells Keith that no matter what happens he—Keith—will always be an astronaut. Peter, on the other hand, has essentially been forgotten and no one in American really knows what he can do, what kind of person he is, what his important capabilities are. This becomes the fulcrum that the book tips upon.
Christian, like your character Keith Corcoran, you are a person of great talent. As a successful musician, college professor and now published author, how do you find your own balance between those passions/obsessions and the needs and joys that come with your wife and (rather large) family of sons? Has writing The Infinite Tides held up a lens to your own life, and if yes, what do you see there?
I am blessed by a truly amazing wife who lets me do what I need to do. My art-making obsessions tend to be solitary and she has understood that need from the beginning. We have a few understandings that help make it work—we sit and watch bad TV together at 9pm every night, for example—but really it’s a tightwire act and she’s the one running the big top. That’s the truth. Yay for her!
As for the self-lens, that’s absolutely true. It’s easy to self-obsess when you’re making songs or recording or writing poems or plays or novels or painting or whatever else. In that way it’s no different from “bring your work home” from the office. That level of obsessive dedication. But it makes us good at what we do. If you’ve got a family, though, and your spouse isn’t committed to your need, you’ve got something of a problem on your hands.
Again, yay for my wife!
Have you ever had your writing (or music, for that matter) performed by someone else? What are you looking forward to most about having The Infinite Tides featured at Stories on Stage?
I have had my music performed by many people and it’s always an amazing experience. Hearing my words being performed by an actor promises to be a fascinating and transformative experience. I can’t wait!
Kate Asche, M.A., is a poet/essayist and creative writing teacher. A graduate of the UC Davis Creative Writing Program, she was a finalist for the 2011 Audio Contest at The Missouri Review and has published poetry in Confrontation, RHINO and elsewhere. Her first published work of creative Nonfiction will be featured in the July 2012 issue of Under the Gum Tree. A trained facilitator in the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) Method, Kate teaches creative writing workshops in Sacramento and offers manuscript coaching to writing groups and individuals. She volunteers regularly for the Sacramento Public Library and the Sacramento Poetry Center and supports 916 INK, a local youth literacy organization inspired by 826 Valencia. Follow her and get the scoop on local writing events at www.kateasche.com/katesmiscellany/.